“Sisterhood and solidarity” keep India’s self-employed women going

News 01.02.2022

Savitaben, a widow with three small children, had been working as a garbage collector in the Indian city of Ahmedabad before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. When the country went into its first lockdown in 2020, Savitaben found herself cut off from her only source of income. Facing starvation, she was determined to find something – anything – else to do. That is how she ended up seeking work at a local Covid clinic.

The hospital needed help cleaning one of the building’s blocked drainage pipes. With no experience or training in plumbing, Savitaben set out to work, and after several hours, she managed to unblock the pipe. The hospital asked her to come back again and maintain the restrooms and other facilities.

Not only did Savitaben find a new source of income, but she also ended up arranging work for 12 other women at the hospital, making sure they and their families didn’t have to go hungry.

The story of Savitaben, who is a member of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), is just one of many, showing the ingenuity, resilience and solidarity of women working in the informal sector, said Reema Nanavaty, SEWA’s Director for Rural Organising and Economic Development.

“These are the women who give us the needed strength and courage,” Nanavaty said. “Look at her: she’s a widow, she has three small children to feed and she braved her life… I asked her, ‘What if you got infected?’ And she said, ‘I had to anyway die: if I did not go out, we would die of starvation.’”

SEWA, which received the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, is a trade union fending for the rights of poor, self-employed women working in the informal sector with little labour protection. These women are among India’s most vulnerable populations.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, SEWA has provided essential services to its members and their communities, including helping them continue their work and providing healthcare.

The power of solidarity and grassroots organising has brought a 10-per-cent increase to SEWA’s membership in 2021. Gaining more than 200,000 new members and maintaining 99 per cent of its previous membership, SEWA now encompasses more than 2 million women workers across India.

“Organising is the key to fight not only poverty but also to cope with and fight major disasters,” Nanavaty said.

2021 brought a second and much deadlier wave of Covid-19 in India – this time, the virus also spread to rural areas and villages, where healthcare is often non-existent.

“We had to do something to ensure that no villager further died because of lack of access to health facilities,” Nanavaty said.

SEWA quickly transformed 17 of its district centres into Covid-19 health facilities and trained grassroots leaders how to use pulse oximeters, thermometers and oxygen tanks. With patients often coming from villages 60-70 kilometres away, SEWA even provided portable oxygen concentrators to help patients make it to the care centres.

SEWA also organised 5,000 women to stitch over 1 million masks, not only providing women with work but also contributing to stopping the spread of the virus. The organisation then trained young people to monitor that masks were properly worn in their communities, which brought the level of mask-wearing from around 25 per cent to 65 per cent in those villages.

“These were some of the things that we had to do, but it was very unfortunate,” Nanavaty said.

SEWA lost around 1,000 members due to Covid-19 during the second wave. Three hundred women members became widows, and more than 200 children connected to SEWA lost both of their parents.

The second wave brought devastation to an already vulnerable population, and India was in the throes of a third wave at the beginning of 2022.

“The members of SEWA and their families were still bouncing back, their livelihoods are not fully stabilised,” Nanavaty said. “Many of them have to diversify and look for new means of livelihood. But now with the third wave at its peak, again, everything has slowed down tremendously, and I think it has affected [them] in several ways.”

Children’s education has been negatively impacted, especially in poor families with little or no access to computers. Families oftentimes have to go hungry or reduce their food consumption. People struggle with stress, anxiety and mental health issues. Many women experience an increased amount of domestic violence. Substance abuse among children and adolescents is on the rise.

“I don’t know what the long term effects of these things, if not addressed, would be,” Nanavaty said.

The path forward for SEWA in 2022 and beyond will be trying to provide a response to the Covid-19 crisis, which is compounded by the parallel climate and economic crises.

“The expectation for this year is [to answer] how do you build not just focus on recovery but also on the resilience of our members against climate shocks and market shocks,” Nanavaty said.

Seeing the ingenuity of SEWA members over the past years, she is hopeful that a better future built on sustainable, green jobs is within reach.

“[There is] this tremendous resilience amongst these poor women,” Nanavaty said. “They are quickly able to diversify, they are willing to adapt, they are willing to take on new risks and new challenges. And that’s what gives them that hope and confidence.”

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